The largest bloc of Sunni Arabs in the Iraqi parliament threatened to withdraw its ministers from the Shiite-dominated cabinet Tuesday in frustration over the Iraq government’s failure to deal with Sunni concerns.
President Bush stepped in to forestall the move, calling one of Iraq’s two vice presidents, Tariq al-Hashimi, a Sunni Arab, and inviting him to Washington, according to al-Hashimi’s office and the White House.
The bloc, known as the Iraqi Consensus Front and made up of three Sunni Arab parties, “has lost hope in rectifying the situation despite all of its sincere and serious efforts to do so,” the statement said.
If the Sunni group follows through on its threat, it would further weaken a government already damaged by the mid-April pullout of six cabinet ministers aligned with the renegade Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr and further erode American efforts to promote reconciliation between Sunnis and Shiites.
Also on Monday, the White House expressed concern about a report in The Washington Post that aides to Prime Minister Nouri Kamal al-Maliki were involved in the arrests or removal of at least 16 army and police commanders, at least nine of whom are Sunni, who had been fighting Shiite militias.
“We’re aware of the reports, we’re concerned about them, and those are the kinds of things we do discuss with the Iraqis that will be a focus of conversations,” said the White House spokesman, Tony Snow. But he added that the Maliki government has taken aggressive enforcement actions in Shiite neighborhoods in the past.
As the Sunni cabinet ministers were threatening to withdraw on Monday, bombs and mortars took the lives of at least 22 Iraqis. American and Iraqi soldiers stopped a three-pronged attack in Mosul by insurgents who struck at the main American military base, a police station and a provincial government center.
At least 104 U.S. troops lost their lives in hostile actions in Iraq in April, the highest of any month so far this year. Another 13 deaths among other allied forces have been reported, making it the highest monthly death toll for all allied forces in more than two years. Military reporting typically lags at least 24 hours, so the final total for the month could be higher.
In his phone call with Bush, al-Hashimi “talked frankly about the faltering political process,” the statement from his office said.
The White House, in a statement from the National Security Council, added that “they focused on the importance of additional steps in the reconciliation process and the need for all Iraqi parties to come together to overcome common challenges they face.”
Gordon D. Johndroe, a White House spokesman, said that Bush had invited al-Hashimi to the White House, for what would be their second meeting there, as part of an ongoing dialogue with Iraq’s highest ranking Sunni official.
If the Sunni bloc pulled its five ministers from the cabinet, it would be a stark reflection of the difficulty al-Maliki’s government has had in mustering support from a broad spectrum of Iraqis. The Shiite ministers who walked out two weeks ago have yet to be replaced.